Animal Cognition Update: Dog Urine and Startled Guppy Edition

“Dogs must think we are so stupid because we have to build fences, and can’t just do this, to mark our territory.”

That Stinks: On one level, I think it would come as no surprise to dog owners that dogs recognize the smell of their own urine, and are more interested in urine from other dogs (When my dog works over a scent near our house I can almost see her thinking “Dammit, what was the jerk lab down the street doing up here?”–before she squats and does her best to over-write the scent).

Still, researcher Alexandra Horowitz thinks she has created a “smell-mirror test” that is sort of analogous to Gordon Gallup’s mirror self-recognition tests. Her conclusions are interesting, even if Gallup himself disagrees.

Guppy Medal Of Honor: Nothing really surprises me about research that shows animals are smarter and more complex in their thinking than humans have generally (and arrogantly) assumed. But the details are always interesting. So I am happy to know that guppies have distinctive personalities, and that whether they are brave or cowards can be revealed by (okay, this part I don’t like so much) scaring them:

According to the team’s study, published Monday in the journal Functional Ecology, each fish demonstrated a unique response to stress — which they endured every three days in the form of a pulley-rigged lawn-ornament heron named “Grim,” or a predatory cichlid suddenly revealed on the other side of the glass.

“Some of them go straight to the shelter,” said Houslay, an evolutionary biologist and the study’s lead author. “Some just stop moving, maybe hoping they won’t be seen. Some rush to the side and just swim up and down trying to escape.”…

By measuring how long each guppy stayed hidden, frozen or otherwise panicked, the researchers determined that some fish were naturally cowards, and some were relatively brave.

And that wasn’t a fluke. The guppies kept proving their cowardice or braveness in repeated tests — every three days for four weeks.

“We see quite complex strategies; more complex than we thought,” Houslay said. “The variation isn’t just random. There’s something more meaningful going on.”

I often think that we’d be a lot closer to the truth if our starting assumption about animals was that they have intelligence, cognition and any number of other traits which the human animal likes to think of as unique to humans, and then used applied science to try and disprove it–instead of assuming all animals are stupid and then being surprised when researchers reveal something which seems pretty obvious to anyone who has ever spent any time around that type of animal.

But we have to take what we can get. And the more people recognize that fish have feelings and personalities, too, the more we might treat them with the respect and moral consideration they deserve–by which I first and foremost mean STOP NETTING AND EATING THEM.


Animal Citizenship?

“Whoa, back off citizen! Sheep have rights, too.”


Well, we already have the Nonhuman Rights Project going for personhood. This angle, explored via Vox, is worth pursuing as well:

What if domestic animals — pets such as dogs and cats as well livestock like cows and chickens — were granted citizenship rights? That may sound like a crazy question, but Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka thinks it’s a critically important one.

Kymlicka, a professor at Queen’s University, is a well-regarded figure in modern political philosophy. He’s also the author, along with writer Sue Donaldson, of Zoopolis, a book making the case for animal citizenship. Their basic premise is simple: animals are already part of our society, as pets and work animals, therefore we should formally recognize them as such.

That’s not just a head-in-the-clouds thought experiment. We already have basic laws forbidding animal abuse and regulating industrial slaughterhouses. But, as anyone who has visited an animal shelter or thought about the ethics of what they eat can attest, we as a society have not come anywhere close to solving the problem of animal mistreatment. If we really want to improve animals’ lives, Kymlicka and Donaldson argue, we need to stop thinking in terms of merely treating animals better. Rather, we need to acknowledge on a fundamental level that animals are a part of society and deserve to be treated as such. That leads you, however improbable it might sound, to citizenship.

Here’s a key point from Kymlicka, in an interview with Vox:

We need to create a shared interspecies society which is responsive to the interests of both its human and animal members. That means that it’s not just a question of how you ensure that animals aren’t abused. If we view them as members of society — it’s as much their society as ours — then it changes the perspective 180 degrees. The question is no longer “how do we make sure they’re not so badly treated?” We instead need to ask “what kind of relationships do they want to have with us?”

That’s really a radical question. It’s one we’ve never really bothered to ask. I think there are some domesticated animals that enjoy activities with us — I think that’s clearest in the case of dogs, but it’s also true of other domesticated animals whose lives are enriched by being part of interspecies activities with us. But there are other animals who, if we took what they wanted seriously, would probably choose to have less and less to do with us. I think this would be true of horses.

And if you are still with him to this point then there is a logical implication that follows. As Kymlicka puts it: “We can’t go around eating our co-citizens.”

Fair point, fair point. Read Vox’s full interview with Kymlicka here. It is a very interesting way to stretch our thinking and logic as we apply it to animals. One way or another, via personhood or citizenship or some other cultural/legal construct, we will eventually give animals the rights and protections they deserve.


“Dogs Are People, Too”

Yet another powerful data point that buttresses the idea that the more we study animal cognition and intelligence the smarter and more emotionally complex we understand animals to be. Rarely, if ever, does a study of animal intelligence conclude: “Well, they are dumber than we thought.”

FOR the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.

Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too…

…The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

DOGS have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering.

But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.

This leads nicely into a logical (and powerful) argument about the need for some sort of limited legal personhood for dogs and other animals.

I’m not sure why research is necessary to prove that dogs and other animals have emotions, as well as think and feel in ways that we humans can understand and recognize. Perhaps humanity jealously guards its sense of exceptionalism (not to mention the desire to exploit animals freely for profit). But if this is the sort of research that is required to get humanity to rethink the ways in which we subordinate and treat animals, then I am glad it is being done.